Private US competitors for Europe’s Arianespace have emerged as a leading contender for bridging a temporary gap with Japan and India, but final decisions depend on a still-unresolved timetable for Europe’s delayed Ariane 6 rocket.
“I would say there are two and a half options that we are discussing. One is SpaceX which is obvious. The other is probably Japan,” ESA Director General Joseph Aschbacher told Reuters.
“Japan awaits the inaugural flight of its next generation rocket. Another option could be India,” he said in an interview.
“SpaceX I would say is more of those operational and certainly one of the back-up launches that we’re seeing.”
Aschbacher said talks are at an exploratory stage and any back-up solution will be temporary.
“We definitely need to make sure they are suitable. It’s not like jumping on a bus,” he said. For example, the interface between the satellite and the launcher must be suitable and the payload must not be compromised by unfamiliar types of launch vibrations.
“We are looking into this technical compatibility but we have not yet sought a commercial offer. We just want to be sure that this will be an option for deciding on seeking a firm commercial offer.”
SpaceX did not respond to a request for comment.
The political fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has already been a boon for SpaceX falcon 9, which has broken ties with Moscow’s increasingly isolated space sector to other customers.
Satellite internet firm OneWeb, a competitor to SpaceX’s Starlink satellite internet venture, booked at least one Falcon 9 launch in March. It has also booked an Indian launch.
On Monday, Northrop Grumman booked three Falcon 9 missions to ferry NASA cargo for International Space Station While it designs a new version of its Antares rocket, whose Russian-built engines were withdrawn by Moscow in response to sanctions.
Europe has so far relied on Italian Vega for small payloads, Russia’s Soyuz for medium and Ariane 5 for heavy missions. Its next-generation Vega C debuted last month and the new Ariane 6 has been postponed until next year.
Ashbacher said a more precise Ariane 6 schedule will be clear in October. Only then will ESA finalize a back-up plan to be presented to the agency’s ministers from 22 countries in November.
“But yes, the need for a back-up launch is more likely,” he said. “The order of magnitude is certainly a good handful of launches that will require us to have an interim solution.”
Eschbacher said the Ukraine conflict had demonstrated Europe’s decade-long cooperation strategy with Russia in areas including gas supplies and space was no longer working.
“It was a wake-up call, that we have become too dependent on Russia. And this wake-up call, we have to hope that the decision-makers feel it as much as I do, that we have to really We have to strengthen our European capability and independence.”
However, he downplayed the possibility of Russia pledging to withdraw from the International Space Station (ISS).
Russia’s newly appointed space chief Yuri Borisov said in a televised meeting with the President Vladimir Putin Last month Russia will withdraw from the ISS “after 2024”.
But Borisov later clarified that Russia’s plans had not changed, and Western officials said Russia’s space agency had not revealed any new pullout plans.
“The reality is that operationally, work on the space station is progressing, I would say, almost nominally,” Ashbacher told Reuters. “We are dependent on each other, like it or not, but we have little choice.”